Maya: The Serpent

Maya Serpent

The serpent as chimera: parts of other creatures are added to the serpent’s body, such as the plumes of the trogon or quetzal, the teeth of the jaguar, and the ornaments of man. The serpent was idealized and the lines characteristic of it entered into the delineation of many subjects distinct from the serpent itself. Scrolls and other sinuous details were attached to the serpent’s body and human ornaments such as earplugs, noseplugs, and even headdresses were added to its head. Finally, a human head was placed in the distended jaws.

The suggested intelligence is human and reptilian.

The Maya were not alone in marvelling at the human serpent.  The following is a collection of such fables from all parts of the world:

Since the beginning of the world the serpent has been regarded as the most mystic of reptiles. He was called "more subtil than any beast of the field," from the day on which he spoke to Eve and said that if she ate of the fruit of the Tree of Life, her eyes should be opened and she should surely not die, and he has been endowed with human powers again and again, worshipped as a god in every part of the world and depicted in ancient art as possessed of human form and attributes. In Aztec paintings the mother of the human race is always represented in conversation with a serpent who is erect. This is the serpent, "who once spoke with a human voice."

Mythology has numberless legends which tell of human or semi-human serpents. The ancient kings of Thebes and Delphi claimed kingship with the snake, and Cadmus and his wife Harmonia, quitting Thebes, went to reign over a tribe of Eel-men in Illyria and became transformed into snakes, just as now Kaffir kings are said to turn into boa-constrictors or other deadly serpents, and some other African tribes believe that their dead chiefs become crocodiles.

Cecrops, the first king of Athens, was supposed to have been half-serpent and half-man, and Cychreus, after slaying a snake which ravaged the island of Salamis, appeared in the form of his victim.

When Minerva contended with Neptune for the city of Athens, she created the olive which became sacred to her, and she planted it on the Acropolis and placed it in the charge of the serpent-god, Erichthonius, who is represented as half-serpent, half-man, the lower extremities being serpentine.

The story of Alexander's birth, as told by Plutarch, is one of the most curious of the man-serpent traditions. Olympias, his mother, kept tame snakes in the house and one of them was said to have been found in her bed, and was thought to be the real father of Alexander the Great. Lucian adopts this view of Alexander's parentage.

The worship of serpent-gods is found amongst many nations. The Chinese god Foki, for instance, is said to have had the form of a man, terminating in the tail of a snake. The same belief in serpent-gods exists among the primitive Turanian tribes. The Acadians made the serpent one of the principal attributes, and one of the forms of Hea, and we find a very important allusion to a mythological serpent in the words from an Acadian dithyrambus uttered by a god, perhaps by Hea:—

Like the enormous serpent with seven heads, the weapon with seven heads I hold it.Like the serpent which beats the waves of the sea attacking the enemy in front,Devastator in the shock of battle, extending his power over heaven and earth, the weapon with (seven) heads (I hold it).

The story of Krishna is very similar to that of Hercules in Grecian mythology, the serpent forming a prominent feature in both. Crishna conquers a dragon, into which the Assoor Aghe had transformed himself to swallow him up. He defeats also Kalli Naga (the black or evil spirit with a thousand heads) who, placing himself in the bed of the river Jumna, poisoned the stream, so that all the companions of Krishna and his cattle, who tasted of it, perished. He overcame Kali Naga, without arms, and in the form of a child. The serpent twisted himself about the body of Krishna, but the god tore off his heads, one after the other, and trampled them under his feet. Before he had completely destroyed Kali Naga, the wife and children of the monster (serpents also) came and besought him to release their relative. Krishna took pity on them, and releasing Kali Naga, said to him, "Begone quickly into the abyss: this place is not proper for thee since I have engaged with thee, thy name shall remain through all the period of time and devatars and men shall henceforth remember thee without dismay." So the serpent with his wife and children went into the abyss, and the water which had been affected by his poison became pure and wholesome.

Krishna also destroyed the serpent-king of Egypt and his army of snakes.

Lamia was an evil spirit having the semblance of a serpent, with the head, or at least the mouth, of a beautiful woman, whose whole figure the demon assumed for the purpose of securing the love of some man whom, it was supposed, she desired to tear to pieces and devour. Lycius is said to have fallen in love with one of these spirits, but was delivered by his master, Apollonius, who, "by some probable conjectures," found her out to be a serpent, a lamia.

Keats made use of this idea in his poem, "Lamia." Later the word was used to mean a witch or enchantress. Melusina was another beautiful serpent-woman who disappeared from her husband's presence every Saturday, and turned into a human fish or serpent.

A modern version of the legend of Melusina is found in Wales. To assume the shape of a snake, witches prepared special charms, and sometimes a ban was placed upon enemies by which they turned into snakes for a time.

A young farmer in Anglesea went to South Wales and there he met a handsome girl whose eyes were "sometimes blue, sometimes grey, and sometimes like emeralds," but they always sparkled and glittered. He fell in love with her at first sight, and she agreed to become his wife if he would allow her to disappear twice a year for a fortnight without questioning her as to where she went. To this arrangement the young husband agreed.

For some years he did not trouble himself about his wife's absence, but his mother began nagging at him, saying that he ought to find out where she went and what she did. Taking his mother's advice, he disguised himself and followed his wife to a lonely part of a forest not far from their home. Hiding himself behind a huge rock, he noticed from this point of vantage that his wife took off her girdle and threw it down in the deep grass near a dark pool. Then she vanished, and the next moment he saw a large and handsome snake glide through the grass, just where she had been standing. He chased the reptile, but the snake disappeared into a hole near the pool. The husband went home and waited patiently for his wife's return, and when she came, he requested her to tell him where she had been. This she refused to do, and when he asked her what she did with her girdle, she blushed painfully.

The next time when she was intending to go away, he seized and hid the girdle, and thus deferred her departure. She was taken ill, and he, hoping to rid her of a baneful charm, threw the girdle in the fire. Then his wife writhed in agony, and when the girdle was burnt up she died. The neighbours called her the Snake-Woman of the South on account of this strange story of her doings.

A shoemaker in the Vale of Taff married a widow for her money and, as love seemed lacking on both sides, it was not long before serious quarrels occurred between the couple. Although it was said that hard blows were struck on both sides, the neighbours remarked that it was strange the shoemaker's wife appeared amongst them without a trace of a bruise on her person. At night loud cries and deep groans arose from the shoemaker's dwelling, and a certain gentleman of an inquisitive turn of mind decided to discover what took place and hid himself in a loft over the kitchen, to spy on the couple. Whatever he may have learnt during the proceedings, he said nothing, and a report was spread that he had been "paid to hold his tongue and not divulge the family secret." At last, however, his discretion failed him, and anger against the shoemaker, with whom he fell into a dispute, made him reveal what he knew. He said that as soon as angry words passed between husband and wife, the latter "assumed from the shoulders upwards, the shape of a snake, and deliberately and maliciously sucked her partner's blood and pierced him with her venomous fangs."

No marks were found on the husband's body, but he grew ever thinner and weaker, and after ailing for many months he died. The doctor who tended him in his last illness declared that he had died from the poisonous sting of a serpent. After this verdict the spy was given the credit of his story, which, however, had a gruesome sequel. He and the doctor were found lying helpless in the churchyard one morning. When roused from what seemed a fatal slumber, they said they had been invited by the shoemaker's widow to drink with her in memory of her late dear second husband. Then she sprang upon them in the shape of a snake and stung them severely. They had only strength enough left to crawl to the churchyard, where they would probably have died from torpor had not the neighbours roused them. The widow was never seen again, but a snake constantly appeared in the neighbourhood and could not be killed by any means, so that it earned the name of "the old snake-woman."

Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was interested in the subject of prenatal influences, depicted the heroine of his well-known novel, "Elsie Venner," as a girl who had received the taint of a serpent before birth, from a snakebite suffered by her mother.

Elsie's friend, Helen Darley, knew the secret of the fascination which looked out of the cold, glittering eyes. She knew the significance of the strange repulsion which she felt in her own intimate consciousness underlying the inexplicable attraction which drew her towards the young girl in spite of her repugnance.

When Elsie was taken ill her doctor said that she had lived a double being, as it were, the consequence of the blight which fell upon her in the dim period before consciousness.

"Elsie Venner" is an American story, but India, where the snake is even more familiar, is the home of many human-serpent stories, and legends of serpent descent.

Near Jait in the Mathura district is a tank with the broken statue of a hooded serpent on it. Once upon a time a Raja married a princess from a distant country and, after a short stay there, decided to take his wife home, but she refused to go until he had declared his lineage. The Raja told her she would regret her curiosity, but she persisted. Finally he took her to the river and there warned her again. She would not take heed and he entreated her not to be alarmed at whatever she saw, adding that if she did she would lose him. Saying this, he began slowly to descend into the water, all the time trying to dissuade her from her purpose, till it became too late and the water rose to his neck. Then, after a last attempt to induce her to give up her curiosity, he dived and reappeared in the form of a Naga (serpent). Raising his hood over the water he said, "This is my lineage! I am a Nagbansi."

His wife could not suppress an exclamation of grief, on which the Naga was turned into stone, where he lies to this day.

A member of the family of Buddha fell in love with the daughter of a serpent-king. He was married to her and presently became the sovereign of the country. His wife had obtained possession of a human body, but a nine-headed snake occasionally appeared at the back of her neck. While she slept one night her husband chopped the serpent in two at a single blow, and this caused her to become blind.

Another curious legend is told of a Buddha priest who had become a serpent because he had killed the tree Elapatra, and he then resided in a beautiful lake near Taxila. In the days of Hiuen-Tsiang, when the people of the country wanted fine weather or rain they went to the spring accompanied by a priest, and, "snapping their fingers, invoked the serpent," and immediately obtained their wishes.

The snake tribe is common enough in the Punjaub. Snake families go through many ceremonies, saying that in olden days the serpent was a great king. If they find a dead snake they put clothes on it and give it a regular funeral. The snake changes its form every hundred years, when it becomes either a man or a bull. Snake-charmers have the power of recognising these transformed snakes, and follow them stealthily until they return to their holes and then ask them where treasure is hidden. This they will do on consideration of a drop of blood from the little finger of a first-born son.

Among fairy tales the favourite story is that of a human being who dons a snake-skin, and when it is burnt he resumes human form. The snake-bridegroom is an exceedingly popular version of this idea.

There was once a poor woman, who had never borne a child and she prayed to God that she might be blessed with one, even though she were to bring forth a snake. And God heard her prayer, and in due course she gave birth to a snake. Directly the reptile saw the light of day it slipped down from her lap into the grass and disappeared. Now the poor woman mourned constantly for the snake, because after God had heard and granted her prayer, it grieved her that the being whom she had conceived should have vanished without leaving a trace as to its whereabouts. Twenty years passed, and then the snake returned and said to its mother, "I am the serpent to which you gave birth, and which fled from you into the grass, and I have come back, mother, so that you may demand the king's daughter for me in marriage."

At first the mother rejoiced at the sight of her son, but soon she grew mournful because she did not know how she dare to demand the hand of the king's daughter for a serpent, especially as she was very poor. But the serpent said, "Go along, mother, and do what I ask; even if the king won't give his daughter, he can't cut your head off for the mere asking. But whatever he says to you do not look back until you get home again."

The mother allowed herself to be persuaded and went to the king. At first the servants would not let her into the palace, but she went on asking until they admitted her. When she entered the king's presence she said to him, "Most gracious Majesty, there is your sword and here is my head. Strike if you must, but let me tell you first that for a long time I was childless and then I prayed to God to bless me, even though I were to bring forth a serpent, and He blessed me and I brought forth a serpent. As soon as it saw the light it vanished into the grass and after twenty years it has returned to me and has sent me here to ask for the hand of your daughter in marriage."

The king burst into laughter and said, "I will give my daughter to your son if he builds me a bridge of pearls and precious stones from my palace to his house."

Then the mother turned to go home, and never looked back, and when she left the palace a bridge of pearls and diamonds arose all the way behind her till she reached her own house. When the mother told the serpent what the king had said, the serpent remarked to her, "Go again and see whether the king will give me his daughter, but whatever he answers don't look round as you come back."

This time the king told the mother that if her son could give his daughter a better palace than his own, he should have her for a wife. The mother went back without looking behind her, and found that her house had changed into a palace, and everything in it was three times as good as in the king's palace. All the furniture was made of pure gold.

Then the serpent asked his mother to go back to the palace and fetch the king's daughter, and this time the king told the princess she must marry the serpent. There was a splendid wedding, and in due course the young wife found she was to become a mother. Then her friends grew inquisitive, saying, "If you are living with a serpent how can you hope to have a child?" At first she would not answer, but when her mother-in-law insisted on putting the same question, she replied, "Mother, your son is not really a serpent, but a young man, so handsome that there is none other like him. Every evening he strips off his snake-skin and in the morning he enters it again."

When the serpent's mother heard this she rejoiced greatly, and longed to see her son after he had stripped off his snake-skin.

Presently the two conspirators arranged that when the young man had gone to bed, they should burn the discarded skin, and while his mother put it in the oven, his wife was to pour cold water on her husband lest he should be destroyed by the heat. No sooner had he laid himself down to sleep, than they carried out their plan, but the smell of the burning skin made him cry out, "What have you done? May God punish you. Where can I go in the condition I now am?" But the women comforted him and said it was better for him to live among ordinary mortals than in the snake form, and before long the king resigned his throne in his favour, and all turned out happily.

A very similar story is told of a queen who also gives birth to a serpent. She is allowed to nurse and fondle her offspring in the usual fashion, but for twenty-two years it does not speak and its first utterance is to demand from its parents a wife.

When the parents remark that no nice girl would care to marry a serpent, he tells them not to look in too high a class for a mate.

In this case the father does the wooing, but the mother evokes the truth about her son. When she learns about the snake-skin, she makes the young wife help to burn it, and tragedy results. The husband curses his wife, saying that she will not see him again until she has worn through iron shoes, and that she shall not give birth to her child until he embraces her once more by putting his right arm round her. Then he vanishes for three years, and all that time she is unable to bear her child, so she decides to seek her husband. She travels through the world and comes to the house of the Sun's mother, and when the Sun comes indoors she inquires whether he has seen her husband. But the Sun can do nothing for her but to send her to the Moon. The same disappointment awaits her there, and the Moon sends her to the Winds. After many striking adventures she finds her husband, makes him undo his curse, and gives birth to a son who has golden locks and golden hands.

In another story of serpent-marriage a woman stands in doubt because she cannot cross a river. A serpent comes out of the river and says, "What will you give me if I carry you across?" The woman, having no other possessions, promises to give her coming child; if it is a girl as a wife, if a boy as a "name friend." In after years she has to fulfil her promise and, taking her daughter to the bank of the river, she sees the snake draw her beneath the water. In the course of time the girl bears her husband four snake sons.

An Ainu girl gave birth to a snake as the result of the sun's rays shining on her while she slept, and the snake turned into a child.

The Dyaks and Silakans will not kill the cobra because in remote ages a female ancestor brought forth twins, a boy and a cobra. The cobra went to the forest, but told the mother to warn her children that if they were ever bitten by cobras they must stay in the same place for a whole day and that then the venom would take no effect. The boy then met his cobra brother in the jungle one day and cut off his tail, so that now all cobras have a blunted tail.

In folk-tales the serpent frequently mates with a woman. A curious Basuto story concerns a girl called Senkepeng, who was deserted by her friends and taken home by an old woman, who said she would make a nice wife for her son. Her son turned out to be a serpent, whom no one had ever seen outside his hut, but he had married all the girls of the tribe in succession with fatal results to them, because he ate all the food. Every morning the girl was awakened by a blow of the serpent's tail and was then ordered to go and prepare his food. At last she grew tired of this treatment and resolved to run away. Her serpent-husband pursued her, but she sang a charm or incantation and this delayed his progress and gave her a chance of continuing her flight. Whenever the serpent came up to her she repeated her song.

At last she reached her father's village and told her story, and people were ready to defend her against her pursuer. As soon as the serpent came in sight Senkepeng sang her charm, and the people attacked the serpent and slew it. Presently the serpent's mother arrived and burnt the mutilated corpse, wrapping the ashes in a skin which she threw into a pond. Walking three times round the pond, without speaking a word, she caused her son to come to life again, and he came out of the pond as a human being, and Senkepeng welcomed him as her husband. In another variant the serpent's ashes are put in a vase of clay, which is given to Senkepeng. Afterwards she uncovers the vase and a man steps out from it.

The first Dindje Indian had two wives, one of whom would have nothing to say to him. She used to disappear during the day, and he followed her to find out her secret. He saw her go into a marsh where she met a serpent. When she returned to the hut she had several children, but hid them from her husband under a cover. The man discovered the hiding-place, and there found horrible little men-serpents, which he killed. Thereupon the woman left him and he never saw her again.

In a Bengal story a mighty serpent, after slaughtering a whole family except one beautiful daughter, carries her off to his watery tank, from which she is rescued by a prince. In Russia it is believed that mortal maidens are carried off by serpents.

The Indians are very superstitious. Otto Stoll, author of "Suggestion und Hypnotismus," showed a friendly Cakchiquel Indian one of his hairs under the microscope. The Indian asked to have it back that he might preserve it, saying that if it were lost, it would turn into a snake, and he would then have to suffer great trouble through snakes all his life. When Dr. Stoll appeared to be sceptical, he told him that he had often seen the long hairs which native women combed out and let fall into the river, become transformed into serpents as they fell. This is a widespread belief, and in an early Mexican dictionary by Molina, in 1571, the word "tzoncoatl" is translated, "the snake which is formed out of horse's hair which fell into the water."

The white snake especially may sometimes be a lovely transformed maiden, as appears from the story of a cowboy who makes a friend of a white snake which comes to play with him and twines about his legs. One evening in midsummer he beholds a fair maiden, who says she is the daughter of an Eastern king and has been forced to spend her life through enchantment in the form of a white snake, with permission to resume human shape on midsummer night every quarter of a century. The cowboy is the first human being who has not shrunk from her when she appears in reptile form. She tells him that she will come again, and will wind herself three times round his body and give him three kisses. If he should shrink from her then she will have to remain a snake for ever. When she appears, the youth stands firm while the reptile caresses him and, lo and behold, there is a crash and a flash and he finds himself in a magnificent palace, with a beautiful girl beside him who becomes his wife.

The Russians have a story of some girls bathing, when a snake comes out of the water and sits upon the clothes of the prettiest one, saying he will not move till she promises to marry him. She agrees, and that very night an army of snakes seize her and carry her beneath the water, where they become men and women. She stays for some years with her husband, and is then allowed to go home and visit her mother. The latter, discovering the husband's name, goes to the water and calls upon him. When he comes to the surface she chops off his head with an axe. Probably the snake-bride has been told by her husband not to mention his name for fear of his death, the name being taboo.

In a Zuni legend the daughter of a chief bathes in a pool sacred to Kolowissa, the serpent of the sea. Kolowissa in anger appears to the maiden in the form of a child, whom she takes to her home. There the child changes into an enormous serpent, who induces her to go away with him, and when she does so he transforms himself again into a handsome youth.

Incredulous that such happiness can befall her, she expresses her doubts to the young man, but he then shows her his shrivelled snake-skin as proof that he is the god of the waters and that he loves her well enough to make her his wife.

A beautiful girl in New Guinea was beloved by a chief of a strange tribe, and he was so fearful of entering her father's territory that he asked a sorcerer for a charm which would enable him to change into a snake the moment he crossed the boundary of his own country. In this form he entered the girl's hut, and on seeing the reptile she began to scream. Her father, however, was more astute and saw the serpent was really a man, so he bade his daughter to go to him, as he must be a great chief to be thus able to transform himself. She obeyed his command, and as the serpent went slowly, her father advised her to burn his tail with a hot banana leaf to make him hurry. This she also did, but at the boundary the snake vanished and presently a handsome young man came up to her and told her he was the serpent, showing certain burns on his feet and legs in proof of the statement.

In France the serpent with a jewel in its head is called vouivre, which is the same as our basilisk or dragon. The vouivre is a reptile from a yard to two yards long, having only one eye in its head, which shines like a jewel and is called the carbuncle. This jewel is regarded as of inestimable value, and those who can obtain one of these treasures become enormously rich. Many of the legends deal with the robbery of this jewel from the serpent, a crime which is frequently punishable by death or madness.

The French have several variants of the story of St. George and the Dragon. At the castle of Vaugrenard, for instance, there lived a lovely lady whose beauty had led her far astray from the path of virtue. She was changed into a basilisk and terrorised the country by her misdeeds. Her son George was a handsome knight, whose natural piety led him to live a life of good deeds. George decided that he must set his country free from the depredations of the monster reptile, which never ceased to prey upon the neighbourhood and he did battle with it as once the archangel, St. Michael, had combated the dragon. George killed the serpent and his horse trampled what remained of it beneath its hoofs.

George was very sad, however, in spite of his victory, and he asked St. Michael, who had witnessed the struggle, what was the punishment for one who had slain his own mother.

"He ought to be burnt," replied St. Michael, "and his ashes strewn to the winds."

So George had to suffer the penalty of being burnt and his ashes were scattered to the winds. So far the story bears a marked resemblance to the family story of the Lambton worm, but the French tale has a curious sequel. The ashes fell in one heap instead of scattering to the wind, and a young girl who was passing gathered them up. Near by she found an apple of Paradise, which she ate. In due course she gave birth to a son, and when the infant was baptised, it cried in a loud tone of voice, "I am called George and I have been born on this earth for the second time." Later he was made a saint.

The Roman genius, which accompanies every man through life as his protector, frequently took the shape of a serpent.

In many lands, by eating a snake, wisdom is acquired, or the language of animals mastered, and generally a particular snake is mentioned by name. Thus with Arabs and Swahilis it is the king of snakes: among Swedish, Danish, Celtic or Slavic peoples it is a white snake or the fabulous basilisk with a crown on its head, which resembles the jewel-headed serpent of Eastern lore.

In the country of Râma there stood a brick stupa or tower, about a hundred feet high, in the time of Hiuen-Tsiang. The stupa constantly emitted rays of glory, and by the side of it was a Naga tank. The Naga frequently changed his appearance into that of a man, and, as such, encircled the tower in the practice of religion, that is, he turned religiously with his right hand towards the tower.

In New Guinea it is believed that a witch is possessed by spirits which can be expelled in the form of snakes.Among the Ainus, madness is explained as possession by snakes. The Zulus believe that an ancestor who wishes to approach a kraal takes serpent shape. In Madagascar different species of snakes are the abode for different classes, one for common people, one for chiefs, and one for women, and in certain parts of Europe it is solemnly believed that people may assume serpent-form during sleep.

- Human Animals, Frank Hamel (New York, Frederick A. Stokes Co., Publishers)

These various examples of human-serpent hybrids throughout the world, of which the Maya figure prominently as evidenced by their iconography, leads to a curiosity about the persistence of this theme in the human psyche.  Serpent myths and serpent worship is a universal human trait, which lives today in the various modern symbols, the most prominent being associations with medicine and its various professions:

Since the dawn of written history, and from the most remote periods, the serpent has been regarded with the highest veneration as the most mysterious of living creatures. Being alike an object of wonder, admiration and fear, it is not strange that it became early connected with numerous superstitions; and when we remember how imperfectly understood were its habits we shall not wonder at the extraordinary attributes with which it was invested, nor perhaps even why it obtained so general a worship. Thus centuries ago Horapollo referring to serpent symbolism, said: "When the Egyptians were representing a universe they delineated the spectacle as a variegated snake devouring its own tail, the scales intimating the stars in the universe, the animal being extremely heavy, as is the earth, and extremely slippery like the water; moreover it every year puts off its old age with its skin as, in the universe, the recurring year effects a corresponding change, and becomes renovated, while the making use of its own body for food implies that all things whatever which are generated by divine providence in the world undergo a corruption into them again."

In all probability the annual shedding of the skin and the supposed rejuvenation of the animal was that which first connected it with the idea of eternal succession of form, subsequent reproduction and dissolution. This doctrine is typified in the notion of the succession of ages which prevailed among the Greeks, and the similar notion met with among nearly all primitive peoples. The ancient mysteries, with few or perhaps no exceptions, were all intended to illustrate the grand phenomena of nature. The mysteries of Osiris, Isis and Horus in Egypt; of Cybele in Phrygia, of Ceres and Proserpine at Eleusis, of Venus and Adonis in Phoenicia, of Bona Dea and of Priapus in Rome, all had this in in common, that they both mystified and typified the creation of things and the perpetuation of life. In all of them the serpent was conspicuously introduced as it symbolized and indicated the invigorating energy of nature. In the mysteries of Ceres, the grand secret which was communicated to the initiates was put in this enigma,—"The bull has begotten a serpent and the serpent a bull," the bull being a prominent emblem of generative force. In ancient Egypt it was usually the bull's horns which served as a symbol for the entire animal. When with the progress of centuries the bull became too expensive an animal to be commonly used for any purpose, the ram was substituted; hence the frequency of the ram's horns, as a symbol for Jove, seen so frequently, for example, among Roman antiquities.

Originally fire was taken to be one of the emblems of the sun, and thus most naturally, inevitably and universally the sun came to symbolize the active, vivifying principle of nature. That the serpent should in time typify the same principle, while the egg symbolized the more passive or feminine element, is equally certain but less easy of explanation; indeed we are to regard the serpent as the symbol of the great hermaphrodite first principle of nature. "It entered into the mythology of every nation, consecrated almost every temple, symbolized almost every deity, was imagined in the heavens, stamped on the earth and ruled in the realms of eternal sorrow." For this animal was estimated to be the most spirited of all reptiles of fiery nature, inasmuch as it exhibits an incredible celerity, moving by its spirit without hands or feet or any of the external members by which other animals effect their motion, while in its progress it assumes a variety of forms, moving in a spiral course and darting forward with whatever degree of swiftness it pleases.

The close relationship if not absolute identity among the early races of man between Solar, Phallic and Serpent worship was most striking; so marked indeed as to indicate that they are all forms of a single worship. It is with the latter that we must for a little while concern ourselves. How prominent a place serpent worship plays in our own Old Testament will be remarked as soon as one begins to reflect upon it. The part played by the serpent in the biblical myth concerning the origin of man is the first and most striking illustration. In the degenerated ancient mysteries of Bacchus some of the persons who took part in the ceremonies used to carry serpents in their hands and with horrid screams call "Eva, Eva;" the attendants were in fact often crowned with serpents while still making these frantic cries. In the Sabazian mysteries the snake was permitted to slip into the bosom of the person to be initiated and then to be removed from below the clothing. This ceremony was said to have originated among the Magi. It has been held that the invocation "Eva" related to the great mother of mankind; even so good an authority as Clemens of Alexandria held to this opinion, but Clemens also acknowledges that the name Eva, when properly aspirated is practically the same as Epha, or Opha, which the Greeks call Ophis, which is, in English, serpent. In most of the other mysteries serpent rites were introduced and many of the names were extremely suggestive. The Abaddon mentioned in the book of Revelation is certainly some serpent deity, since the prefix Ab, signifies not only father, but serpent. By Zoroaster the expanse of the heavens and even nature itself was described under the symbol of the serpent. In ancient Persia temples were erected to the serpent tribe, and festivals consecrated to their honor, some relic of this being found in the word Basilicus, or royal serpent, which gives rise to the term Basilica applied to the Christian churches of the present era. The Ethiopians, even, of the present day derive their name from the Greek Aithiopes, meaning the serpent gods worshipped long before them; again, the Island of Euboea signifies the Serpent Island and properly spelled should be Oub-Aia. The Greeks claimed that Medusa's head was brought by Perseus, by which they mean the serpent deity, as the worship was introduced into Greece by a people called Peresians. The head of Medusa denoted divine wisdom, while the Island was sacred to the serpent. The worship of the serpent being so old, many places as well as races received names indicating the prevalence of this general superstition; but this is no time to catalogue names,—though one perhaps should mention Ophis, Oboth, Eva in Macedonia, Dracontia, and last but not least, the name of Eve and the Garden of Eden.

Seth was, according to some, a semi-divine first ancestor of the Semites; Bunsen has shown that several of the antedeluvian descendants of Adam were among the Phoenician deities; thus Carthagenians had as God, Yubal or Jubal who would appear to have been the sun-god of Esculapius; or, spelled more correctly, Ju-Baal, that is Beauty of Baal.

Whether or not the serpent symbol has a distinct phallic reference has been disputed, but the more the subject is broadly studied the more it would seem that such is the case. It must certainly appear that the older races had that form of belief with which the serpent was always more or less symbolically connected, that is, adoration of the male principle of generation, one of whose principal phases was undoubtedly ancestor worship, while somewhat later the race adored the female principle which they symbolized by the sacred tree so often alluded to in Scripture as the Assyrian grove. Whether snakes be represented singly, coupled in pairs as in the well known Caduceus or Rod of Esculaipius, or in the crown placed upon the head of many a god and goddess, or the many headed snake drinking from the jewelled cup, or a snake twisted around a tree with another approaching it, suggesting temptation and fall,—in all these the underlying principle is always the same. Symbols of this character are met with not only in the temples of ancient Egypt but in ruins antedating them in Persia and the East; in the antiquities belonging to the races that first peopled what is now Greece and Italy, in the rock markings of India and of Central Europe, in the Cromlechs of Great Britain and Scandinavia, in the Great Serpent Mound which still remains in Ohio, and in many other mounds left by the mound builders of this country, in the ruins of Central America and Yucatan, and in the traditions and relics of the Aztecs and Toltecs,—in fact wherever antiquarian research has penetrated or where monuments of ancient peoples remain. There never has been so widespread a superstition, and no matter what later forms it may have assumed we must admit that it, first of all, and for a long time was man's tribute to the great, all powerful and unknown regenerative principle of nature, which has been deified again and again, and which always has been and always will be the greatest mystery within the ken of mankind.

Brown in his "Great Dionysiak Myth" says the serpent has these points of connection with Dionysus, (1) as a symbol of and connected with wisdom, (2) as a solar emblem, (3) as a symbol of time and eternity, (4) as an emblem of the earth, life, (5) as connected with the fertilizing mystery, (6) as a phallic emblem. Referring to the last of these he says: "The serpent being connected with the sun, the earth, life and fertility, must needs be also a phallic emblem, and was appropriate to the cult of Dionysos Priapos." Again, Sir G. W. Cox says, "It is unnecessary to analyze theories which profess to see in it worship of the creeping brute or the wide-spreading tree; a religion based upon the worship of the venomous reptile must have been a religion of terror. In the earliest glimpses which we have the serpent is the symbol of life and of love, nor is the phallic cultus in any respect a cult of the full grown branching tree." Again, "This religion, void of reason, condemned in the wisdom of Solomon, probably survived even Babylonian captivity; certainly it was adopted by the sects of Christians which were known as Ophites, Gnostics and Nicolaitans."

Another learned author says: "By comparing the varied legends of the East and West in conjunction we obtain a full outline of the mythology of the ancients. It recognizes as the primary element of things two independent principles of nature, the male and female, and these, in characteristic union as the soul and body, constitute the Great Hermaphrodite Deity, the one, the universe itself, consisting still of the two separate elements of its composition, modified though combined in one individual, of which all things are regarded but as parts." In fact the characteristics of all pagan deities, male or female, gradually mold into each other and at last into one or two; for as William Jones has stated, it seems a well-founded opinion that the entire list of gods and goddesses means only the powers of nature, principally those of the sun, expressed in a variety of ways with a multitude of fanciful names. The Creation is, in fact, human rather than a divine product in this sense, that it was suggested to the mind of man by the existence of things, while its method was, at least at first, suggested by the operation of nature; thus man saw the living bird emerge from the egg, after a certain period of incubation, a phenomenon equivalent to actual creation as apprehended by his simple mind. Incubation obviously then associated itself with creation, and this fact will explain the universality with which the egg was received as a symbol in the earlier systems of cosmogony. By a similar process creation came to be symbolized in the form of a phallus, and so Egyptians in their refinement of these ideas adopted as their symbol of the great first cause a Scarabaeus, indicating the great hermaphroditic unity, since they believed this insect to be both male and female. They beautifully typified a part of this idea also in the adoration which they paid to the water lily, or Lotus, so generally regarded as sacred throughout the East. It is the sublime and beautiful symbol which perpetually occurs in oriental mythology, and, as Maurice has stated, not without substantial reason, for it is its own beautiful progeny and contains a treasure of physical instruction. The lotus flower grows in the water among broad leaves, while in its center is formed a seed vessel shaped like a bell, punctured on the top with small cavities in which its seeds develop; the openings into the seed cells are too small to permit the seeds to escape when ripe, consequently they absorb moisture and develop within the same, shooting forth as new plants from the place where they originated; the bulb of the vessel serving as a matrix which shall nourish them until they are large enough to burst open and release themselves, after which they take root wherever deposited. "The plant, therefore, being itself productive of itself, vegetating from its own matrix, being fostered in the earth, was naturally adopted as a symbol of the productive power of the waters upon which the creative spirit of the Creator acted, in giving life and vegetation to matter. We accordingly find it employed in every part of the northern hemisphere where symbolical religion, improperly called idolatry, existed."

Further exemplification of the same underlying principle is seen in the fact that most all of the ancient deities were paired; thus we have heaven and earth, sun and moon, fire and earth, father and mother, etc. Faber says "The ancient pagans of almost every part of the globe were wont to symbolize the world by an egg, hence this symbol is introduced into the cosmogonies of nearly all nations, and there are few persons even among those who have made mythology their study to whom the mundane egg is not perfectly familiar; it is the emblem not only of earth and life but also of the universe in its largest extent." In the Island of Cyprus is still to be seen a gigantic egg-shaped vase which is supposed to represent the mundane or Orphic egg. It is of stone, measuring thirty feet in circumference, and has upon it a sculptured bull, the emblem of productive energy. It is supposed to signify the constellation of Taurus, whose rising was connected with the return of the mystic re-invigorating principle.

The work of the Mound Builders in this country is generally and widely known, still it is perhaps not so generally known how common upon this continent was the general use of the serpent symbol. Their remains are spread over the country from the sources of the Allegheny in N. Y. state westward to Iowa and Nebraska, to a considerable extent through the Mississippi Valley, and along the Susquehanna as far as the Valley of Wyoming in Pennsylvania. They are found even along the St. Lawrence River; they also line the shore of the Gulf from Florida to Texas. That they were erected for other than defensive purposes is most clear; without knowing exactly what was the government of their builders the presumption is that it combined both the priestly and civil functions, as obtained centuries ago in Mexico. The Great Serpent Mound, already alluded to, had a length of at least 1,000 feet; the outline was perfectly regular and the mouth was widely open as if in the act of swallowing or ejecting an oval figure, also formed of earth, whose longest diameter was one hundred and sixty feet. Again near Granville, Ohio, occurs the form of an alligator in connection with which was indubitable evidence of an altar. Near Tarlton, Ohio, is another earth work in the form of a cross. There is every reason to think that sacrifices were made upon the altars nearly always found in connection with these mounds. Among the various animal effigies found in Wisconsin, mounds in the form of a serpent are most frequently met with, while circles enclosing a pentagon, or a mound with eight radiating points, undoubtedly representing the sun, were also found.

There would seem in all these representations to be an unmistakable reference to that form of early cosmogony in which every vivification of the mundane egg constituted a real act of creation. In Japan this conceptive egg is allegorically represented by a nest-egg shown floating upon an expanse of water, against which a bulb is striking with horns. The Sandwich Islanders have a tradition that a bird, which with them is an emblem of deity, laid an egg upon the waters, which burst of itself and thus produced the Islands. In Egypt, Kneph was represented as a serpent emitting from his mouth an egg, from which proceeds the divinity Phtha. In the Bible there is frequent reference to seraphs; Se Ra Ph is the singular of seraphim, meaning, splendor, fire or light. It is emblematic of the fiery sun, which under the name of the Serpent Dragon was destroyed by the reformer Hezekiah; or, it means, also, the serpent with wings and feet, as used to be represented in funeral rituals.

Undoubtedly Abraham brought with him from Chaldea into lower Egypt symbols of simple phallic deities. The reference in the Bible to the Teraphim of Jacob's family reminds us that Terah was the name of Abraham's father, and that he was a maker of images. Undoubtedly the Teraphim were the same as the Seraphim; that is, were serpent images and were the household charms of the Semitic worshippers of the Sun-God, to whom the serpent was sacred. In Numbers, 21, the serpent symbol of the Exodus is called a seraph; moreover when the people were bitten by a fiery serpent Moses prayed for them, when Jehovah replied, "Make them a fiery serpent, (literally seraph) and set it upon a pole, and it shall come to pass that every one who is bitten when he looketh upon it shall live." The exact significance of this healing figure of the serpent is far to seek.

In this connection it must be remembered also, that among several of the Semitic tongues the same root signifies both serpent and phallus, which are both ineffect solar emblems. Cronus of the ancient Orphic theogony, probably identical with Hercules, was represented under the mixed emblem of a lion and a serpent, or often as a serpent alone. He was originally considered Supreme, as is shown from his being called Il, which is the same as the Hebrew, El, which was, according to St. Jerome, one of the ten names of God. Damascius in his life of Isidorus mentions that Cronus was worshipped under the name of El. Brahm, Cronus and Kneph each represented the mystical union of the reciprocal or active and passive regenerative principles.

The Semitic Deity, Seth, was certainly a serpent god, and can be identified with Saturn and with deities of other people. The common name of God, Eloah, among the Hebrews and other Semites, goes back into the earliest times; indeed Bryant goes so far as to say that El was the original name of the Supreme deity among all the nations of the East. He was the same as Cronus, who again was the primeval Saturn. Thus Saturn and El were the same deity, and like Seth were symbolized by the serpent.

On the western continent this great unity was equally recognized; in Mexico as Teotl, in Peru as Varicocha or the Soul of the Universe, in Central America and Yucatan as Stunah Ku, or God of Gods. The mundane egg was everywhere received as the symbol of the original, passive, unorganized formless nature, and later became associated with other symbols referring to the creative force or vitalizing influence, which was often represented in emblem by a bull. In the Aztec Pantheon all the other gods and goddesses were practically modified impersonations of these two principles. In the simpler mythology of Peru these principles took the form of the Sun, and the Moon his wife. Among the ruins of Uxmal are two long massive walls of stone thirty feet thick, whose inner sides are embellished with sculpture containing fragments of colossal entwined serpents which run the whole length of the walls; in the center of the wall was a great stone ring.

Among the annals of the Mexicans the woman whose name old Spanish writers translated "The woman of our Fish" is always represented as accompanied by a great male serpent. This serpent is the Sun-God, the principal deity of the Mexican Pantheon, while the name which they give to the goddess mother of primitive man signifies "Woman of the Serpent."

Inseparably connected with the serpent as a phallic emblem are also the pyramids, and, as is well known, pyramids abound in Mexico and Central America. As Humboldt years ago observed pyramids existed through Mexico, in the forests of Papantha at a short distance above sea-level; on the plains of Cholula and of Teotihuacan, and at an elevation which exceeds those of the passes of the Alps. In most widely different nations, in climates most different, man seems to have adopted the same style of construction, the same ornaments, the same customs, and to have placed himself under the government of the same political institutions. Mayer describing one of his trips says, "I constantly saw serpents in the city of Mexico, carved in stone and in the various collections of antiquities." The symbolic feathered serpent was by no means peculiar to Mexico and Yucatan. Squier encountered it in Nicaragua on the summits of volcanic ridges; even among our historic Indian tribes, for example among the Lenni Lenape, they called the rattlesnake "grandfather," and made offerings of tobacco to it. Furthermore in most of the Indian traditions of the Manitou the great serpent figures most conspicuously.

It has been often remarked that every feature of the religion of the new world discovered by Cortez and Pizarro indicates a common origin for the superstitions of both continents, for we have the same worship of the sun, the same pyramidal monuments, and the same universal veneration of the serpent. Thus it will be seen that the serpent symbol had a wide acceptance upon this continent as well as the other, and among the uncivilized and semi-barbaric races; that it entered widely into all symbolic representation with an almost universal significance. Perhaps the latest evidences of the persistence of this belief may be seen in the tradition ascribing to St. Patrick, the credit of having driven all the serpents from Irish soil; or in the perpetuation of rites, festivals and representations whose obsolete origin is now forgotten. For instance the annual May-day festival, scarcely yet discontinued, is certainly of this origin, yet few if any of those who participate in it are aware that it is only the perpetuation of the vernal solar festival of Baal, and that the garlanded May-pole was anciently a phallic emblem. Among men of my own craft the traditions of Aesculapius are familiar. Aesculapius is, however, inseparably connected with the serpent myth and in statues and pictures he is almost always represented in connection with a serpent. Thus he is seen with the Caduceus or the winged wand entwined by two serpents, or, sometimes with serpents' bodies wound around his own; but rarely ever without some serpent emblem. Moreover the Caduceus is identical with the simple figure of the Cross by which its inventor, Thoth, is said to have symbolized the four elements proceeding from a common center. In connection with the Cross it is interesting also that in many places in the East serpent worship was not immediately destroyed by the advent of Christianity. The Gnostics for example, among Christian sects, united it with the religion of the Cross, as might be shown by many quotations from religious writers. The serpent clinging to the Cross was used as a symbol of Christ, and a form of Christian serpent worship was for a long time in vogue among many beside the professed Ophites. In the celebration of the Bacchic mysteries the mystery of religion, as usual throughout the world, was concealed in a chest or box. The Israelites had their sacred Ark, and every nation has had some sacred receptacle for holy things and symbols. The worshippers of Bacchus carried in their consecrated baskets the mystery of their God, while after their banquet it was usual to pass around the cup which was called "The Cup of the Good Daemon," whose symbol was a serpent. This was long before the institution of the rite of the Last Supper. The fable of the method by which the god Aesculapius was brought from Epidaurus to Rome, and the serpentine form in which he appeared before his arrival in Rome for the purpose of checking the terrible pestilence, are well known. The serpentine column which still stands in the old race course in Constantinople is certainly a relic of serpent worship, though this fact was not appreciated by Constantine when he set it up.

The significance of the Ark is not to be overlooked. First, Noah was directed to take with him into the Ark animals of every kind. But this historical absurdity, read aright and in its true phallic sense, means that the Ark was the sacred Argha of Hindoo mythology, which like the moon in Zoroastrian teachings, carries in itself the germ of all things. Read in this sense the thing is no longer incomprehensible. As En Arche (in the beginning) Elohim created the Heavens and the Earth, so in the Ark were the seeds of all things preserved that they might again repopulate the earth. Thus this Ark of Noah, or of Osiris, the primeval ship whose navigation has been ascribed to various mythological beings, was in fact the Moon or the Ship of the Sun, in which his seed is supposed to be hidden until it bursts forth in new life and power. But the dove which figures so conspicuously in the biblical legend was consecrated to Venus in all her different names, in Babylon, in Syria, in Palestine and in Greece; it even attended upon Janus in his Voyage of the Golden Fleece. And so the story of Jonah going to Joppa, a seaport where Dagon, the Fish-God was worshipped, and of the great fish, bears a suspicious relation to the same cult, for the fish was revered at Joppa as was the dove at Nineveh.

It has been impossible to dissociate serpent and serpent worship from Aesculapius. This is not because this mythological divinity is supposed to have been the founder of my profession, but because he has been given at all times a serpentine form and has been, apparently, on the most familiar terms with the animal. Pausanias, indeed, assures us that he often appeared in serpentine form, and the Roman citizens of two thousand years ago saw in this god "in reptilian form an object of high regard and worship." When this divinity was invited to make Rome his home, in accordance with the oracle, he is represented as saying:

"I come to leave my shrine;

This serpent view, that with ambitious play

My staff encircles; mark him every way;

His form though larger, nobler, I'll assume,

And, changed as God's should be, bring aid to Rome."

(Ovid: Metamorphosis XV).

When in due time this salutary serpent arrived upon the island in the Tiber he began to assume his natural form, whatever that may have been;

"And now no more the drooping city mourns,

Joy is again restored and health returns."

Considering then the intimate relation between the founder of medicine and the serpent it will not seem strange to you that the serpent myth is a subject of keen interest to every student of the history of medicine.

This devotion to serpent worship appears to have lingered a long time in Italy, for so late as the year 1001 a bronze serpent on the basillica of St. Ambrose was worshipped. De Gubernatis speaking of it says, "Some say it was the serpent Aesculapius, others Moses, others that it was the image of Christ; for us it is enough to remark that it was a mythological serpent before which the Milanese mothers offered their children when they suffered from worms, in order to relieve them," a practice which was finally suppressed by San Carlo. Moreover, there has persisted until recently what is called a snake festival in a little mountain church near Naples, where those participating carry snakes around their persons, the purpose of the festival being to preserve the participants from poison and sudden death and bring them good fortune. (Sozinskey).

The power of the sun over health and disease was long ago recognized in the old Chaldean hymn in which the sun is petitioned thus:

"Thou at thy coming cure the race of man;

Cause the ray of health to shine upon him;

Cure his disease."

Probably some feeling akin to that voiced in this way gave rise to the following beautiful passage in Malachi (4:2):

"The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings."

As a purely medical symbol the serpent is meant to symbolize prudence; long ago men were enjoined to be "As wise as serpents" as well as harmless as doves. In India the serpent is still regarded as a symbol of every species of learning. It has also another medical meaning, namely, convalescence, for which there is afforded some ground in the remarkable change which it undergoes every spring from a state of lethargy to one of active life.

According to Ferguson, the experience of Moses and the Children of Israel with brazen serpents led to the first recorded worship paid to the serpent, which is also noteworthy, since the cause of this adoration is said to have been its intrinsic healing power. The prototype of the brazen serpent of Moses in latter times was the Good Genius, the Agathodaemon of the Greeks, which was regarded always with the greatest favor and usually accorded considerable power over disease.

The superstitious tendency to regard disease and death as the visitation of a more or less capricious act by some extra mundane power persists even to the present day. For example, in the Episcopal book of Common Prayer, it is stated, in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick, "Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness be, know you certainly that it is God's visitation," while for relief the following sentiment is formulated in prayer, "Lord look down from heaven, behold, visit and relieve these, thy servants," thus voicing the very ideas which were current among various peoples of remote antiquity and eliminating all possibility of such a thing as the regulation of disease or of sanitary medicine.

- The Evil Eye, Thanatology and Other Essays, Roswell Park M.D. LL.D.  (Richard G. Badger, The Gorham Press, Boston)

in the Americas the serpent chimera is Kukulkan (bird-serpent), Gucumatz (feathered-serpent), Hurakan — whence our "hurricane"— Votan (serpent), &c. He is always a serpent, and generally feathered or flying. He is all pervasive in the cradle of civilization in the Americans.  It is fashionable to associate this deity with the Wind.  It is suggested that he is a personification of the wind, especially of the east wind, which brings the fertilizing rains in the lands of the Maya. Almost everywhere he is credited with gentle and beneficent dispositions, and therefore with a certain hostility to human sacrifice; his followers in the world of the Aztec were said to be against human sacrifice. It was this deity, in one of his forms, who was worshipped in the sacred island of Cozumel, situated close to Yucatan, to which pilgrimages were made from great distances. It was there that the Spaniards, to their great surprise, first observed a cross surmounting the temple of this god. This was the starting-point of the legend according to which the Apostle Thomas had of old evangelized America.  The pagan cross of Central America and Mexico life the serpent in his many forms is either an echo or our common humanity, as is most likely, or evidence of cultural intercourse over the ages and continents of the world.


TheOrly | © 2017

The Nagual and Nagualism

Aztec: God on Earth